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Minister accuses irrigation proponents naivity

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Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Allan Chiyembekeza, has accused irrigation farming campaigners in the country of being too naive in their proposals.

Chiyembekeza said there are some people who find pleasure in pointing fingers, accusing the government of failing to utilise the country’s land and water resources in irrigation agriculture yet they have little or no knowledge of how irrigation farming operates.

He was reacting to a question on why the government insists on investing over K40 billion into rain-fed agriculture through the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) amidst an erratic rainfall pattern, which is currently posing a serious possibility of crop failure for the second successive year.

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The K60 billion 2014/15 Fisp failed to make impact due to erratic rains and subsequent floods that hit some parts of the country at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, leaving over 2.8 million people in dire need of food.

There are also chances that the K42 billion 2015/2016 Fisp may fail to leave a positive impact due to bad rains emanating from the effects of the strongest El Nino the world is experiencing.

Chiyembekeza said irrigation is an activity for the private sector and what the government does is to provide direction but critics want the government to own schemes and grow maize, which he described as funny thinking.

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“There are some people who just talk without knowing what they are talking about. I think we have to change that. Everybody talks about irrigation but how many know about irrigation and what is required to do irrigation? How many irrigation schemes do we have in the country?…how many? How much water is flowing into those schemes before growing maize and how many people would choose to grow maize using irrigation farming? Maybe that’s what we have to be asking ourselves.

“It is not about speaking in an office and saying government is wasting resources on Fisp because it is rain-fed why can’t we use that in irrigation. I have visited so many irrigation schemes, which irrigation scheme do you have in mind where we can invest Fisp resources and get something? What were those irrigation schemes established for? Do we know about that?” Chiyembekeza said.

He then challenged those who ‘blow trumpets’ by talking about the establishment of schemes along Lake Malawi to accompany him on a site seeing trip and tell him what they would do.

“And everybody talks about having a scheme along Lake Malawi. I wish they made a trip and looked at the land they are talking about and who owns that land. We have Malawi Mangoes in Salima, they have struggled to get land there…struggled. Government had to pay lots and lots of money to compensate the people. There are so many things we need to look at than just quick thing of saying government is wasting resources on Fisp for rain-fed agriculture, which is not assisting us.

“Since when has rain-fed agriculture not helped this country? From 2005 when subsidy was introduced, we have realised bumper yields with a good season. Sometimes bad but not as worse as last year and what is happening now. I really wish these people had gone to the places they are talking about and see what is happening there and come back and tell me to say, I think this system has failed in this way and I would have done this or that…demonstrating. I wish that happened,” he said.

A report that Oxfam released towards the end of last year, cited Malawi as one of the countries that are currently suffering the impacts of climate change, and likely to be worst hit again. Others are Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

Chiyembekeza, an agriculturalist himself, said he knows what irrigation can do but there are limitations, insisting the private sector cannot take the risk of growing maize under irrigation farming.

“Even under rain-fed, nobody in the private sector can come out to say, I am growing maize for sale and be able to make profits. That’s why everybody says government has given out money for subsidies and people will grow maize and then at the time we will run to the farmers and buy at a very low price.

“They know government subsidised production. So, they want to buy all the maize at a very low price and then when we have problems like this one, they want to come back to government and sell that maize at K200 per kilogramme,” Chiyembekeza said.

He said there is a lot that needs to be done collectively instead of just pointing fingers at each other for the sake of showing that one knows better than the other.

But Chairperson for Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Felix Jumbe, said the problem is that the country’s agriculture policy narrowly defines agriculture as an area for the administration of food security and irrigation as an occupation of smallholder farmers.

“If you are aiming at food security, you have a narrow vision. Narrow vision means you have narrow investment, investing in rain fed for example, because once we have good rains we have no problems of food in the country, And if we have no food problems, we have solved our problem. And because we have a narrow vision, there is no need to invest further. That is why this country has failed to invest in irrigation farming,” Jumbe said.

He said maize is an international commodity which Malawi can export but due to the same narrow definition of agriculture, the government thinks maize is only for consumption.

“Irrigation agriculture is for exports. But the problem in Malawi is that no matter how educated they are, people in government think smallholder. Of late, they have been advocating for the private sector to come in. but how does the private sector come in?

“Our problem is that we do not have well coordinated policy for commercial agriculture. And when you mention commercial, it is like you are a sinner. They want social agriculture. They want to do poverty agriculture” Jumbe said.

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